TAMPA - Vandalism of an ammonia pipeline spews potentially deadly gas in eastern Hillsborough County, leading officials to order evacuations, close schools and reroute traffic.
It happened four years ago in southeast Hillsborough, just as it did Monday near Riverview.
And two years ago a fuel pipeline ruptured near Plant City, forcing evacuations and causing environmental damage.
The Tampa Bay area has the largest concentration of pipelines in Florida; more than 900 miles of pipes carrying toxic and combustible substances, including fuel for cars and airplanes, natural gas for home energy needs and ammonia for fertilizer processing.
Polk and Hillsborough counties are first and second in pipeline mileage, respectively, with slightly more than 15 percent of the statewide total, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Hillsborough County sheriff's Capt. Al Greco, who supervises the department's homeland security division, said it is nearly impossible to police all of the pipelines that run eastward from the Port of Tampa. There are about a half-dozen pipelines, some of them above ground and unprotected.
Greco said deputies know where the pipes are and watch them "as time and duty permits." There is not a specific group of law enforcement officials assigned to patrol the lines, which are privately owned.
"Deputies try to keep a close eye on them because they are so important," Greco said. "There's no way I can assign anybody to just that."
The department relies on civilians to help out, he said: "If the public sees something that looks suspicious around one of these pipelines, they should call us."
Late Monday afternoon a teenager was injured when he tried to drill a hole in one of three pipelines that carry anhydrous ammonia from the Port of Tampa to Polk County. The chemical shot from the punctured line, forming a toxic cloud that led officials to order an evacuation of 3,700 homes near the U.S. 301 bridge over the Alafia River.
Three schools were shut down, and the road remained closed as repairs continued late Tuesday.
Pipelines are regulated by the federal transportation department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, with the federal Transportation Security Administration assisting on security issues.
A TSA spokeswoman said the agency has reviewed 66 pipeline network security plans and made more than 100 on-site inspections nationwide. But it was unclear late Tuesday whether it has examined pipelines in the Tampa Bay area.
Nationwide, the number of "significant incidents" involving pipeline breaks dropped to 34 in 2006 from a high of 93 in 1988. The government threshold for such an incident includes events resulting in death, hospitalization, more than $50,000 in damage, or fires and explosions.
"Companies are taking a more proactive approach to monitor their pipeline systems," pipeline administration spokesman Damon Hill said. He said ammonia pipeline vandalism has occurred in other parts of the country, but it isn't a frequent problem.
Hill said Tampa Pipeline Corp., which owns the ammonia pipelines and a jet fuel pipeline servicing Tampa International Airport, is not facing any safety-related regulatory penalties from the agency. The company has received three warnings since 1998, mostly for administrative errors.
Federal regulators say Florida has had two dozen significant pipeline incidents since 1997. The list includes the 2005 fuel line rupture near Plant City, but not the May 2003 ammonia pipeline rupture in southeast Hillsborough.
The latter leak closed schools, forced evacuations and injured Erick Hansen, who was convicted in federal court and sentenced to 30 years in prison for tampering with the line.
After the incident, stronger chains and locks were placed on the pipeline's valve boxes and the locations of the boxes were more precisely mapped to give engineers easier access. Students and administrators at nearby schools learned how to take shelter if a leak occurred.
Robert Rose, president of Tampa Pipeline Corp., said his company would explore what else can be done to protect its pipelines.
"Everything was done we could do; we just weren't geared up for some kid drilling holes in the pipeline," he said. "What we have to do now is go through and review all the procedures we have in place and see if we can do anything to make it better."
Monday's vandalism also could cast a cloud over a proposal by Houston-based Kinder Morgan to build a second jet fuel pipeline to Tampa International Airport. Tampa Pipeline has persuaded a few neighborhood groups to oppose the second pipeline and is lobbying the city council to deny a franchise agreement to Kinder Morgan.
"When anybody has a problem like this it hurts everybody across the board," Rose said, "and people just don't want more pipelines."
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